As the Christmas season is upon us, my wife and I have been hearing a lot from our daughters the phrase…”oh, i want that!” referring to some toy that they’ve seen on TV. At the same time, in our church we just spent a month focusing on the topic of generosity under the banner of our Be Rich (towards God and others) campaign. It’s actually a really enlightened way to reorder your life’s priorities around generosity. You should check it out. Even our daughters have been coming home on Sundays talking about what it means to be a helping hand. The challenge is, translating that desire to be a helping hand into action, turning passion into action.
Here’s my case in point. About a week ago after Thanksgiving Samantha and I decided that we wanted to do something different for the holidays. Instead of simply spending lots of money of gifts, we wanted to get the girls involved in some kind of act of service, to demonstrate what it means to be love in action. My time as a public school teacher, and working in education to support the most disenfranchised of our families as taught me that there’s nothing better for building empathy than being right there in the midst of people’s circumstances, listening, watching, and leveraging your talents with theirs. One bonus lesson i’ve learned, the younger you start, the deeper this devotion becomes. We’re trying to raise a generation of young ladies who see it as their privilege and responsibility to work alongside those who can’t for themselves.
But here’s what makes it so difficult: I believe young kids naturally understand empathy to some degree. They just need a little guidance about what to do with this emotional information. For example, my middle daughter, Olivia is one of the strongest feelers I know. She can sense when I’m angry or upset, and will come up quietly, put her hand on my shoulder and ask if everything is alright. That’s a correct response in my opinion. But what about for some of the world’s bigger, more intractable problems (poverty, racism, homelessness, lack of adequate access to healthcare or education, etc). In these cases, unless they’re exposed in a deliberate way that provides teachable moments, it’ll be hard for them to build real empathy that seeks to understand someone else’s experience. At best, from afar they may exhibit sympathy, but sympathy really only goes so far.
The truth of the matter is, I’m not trying to raise selfish, spoiled kids who don’t know what it looks like to take responsibility for the world around them. To whom much has been given, much is required. My girls are growing up with far more than Samantha and I ever had, and we’re trying to prepare them for the expectation that they are leaders, like Queen Esther, positioned to do something great in this world.
So, yesterday as we were in Target we began preparation for our first act of service: purchasing toys for the Angel Tree program (a program that i once was a beneficiary of growing up with a single mom and incarcerated parent. Man it feels good to come full circle with this opportunity to give back!). But, as we were walking down the aisles, trying to explain to our 2 oldest daughters what we were going to do, neither of them wanted to pick out a gift only to give it away. Actually, they were pretty confused about why we were doing this to begin with, not in a malicious way, but i could tell that they just didn’t quite understand. I turned to my wife and told her that they might not really get it until/unless they actually watched the face of a kid not expecting to get any gift for Christmas open their little gift. Then, it might click. But how to engineer that type of learning experience?
That, my friends, is the question for which I am still in search of an answer. I suspect (as is usually the case), life will present itself with a natural opportunity to teach this lesson. We’ve just got to be vigilant and open to noticing “light shining opportunities” when they come along.
PS- if anyone has any great ideas for ways families can practice learning to be a light, please share!